Saturday, August 18, 2007

Plum Tales

Alright, let's presume that I spend the next week engrossed in revising Cured with Death. Every day, that's what I'll be doing. Okay, I may do a teeny bit of snorkelling, but apart from that, it's editing all the way. Which makes this an ideal time to share my week at Plum Village.

The Saturday

The train from Bordeaux is packed - with Plum Village folk, as it turns out. We're an eclectic bunch, coming from all over the world. For many (like me) it's their first visit; others look like old-timers. The man sitting opposite me was referred by his yoga instructor. Another is coming because he read an interview with Thich Nhat Hanh in National Geographic. Someone else was at the Neuroscience Retreat held in Plum Village last year. That's right, neuroscience.

I've been wanting to come here for years. Thich Nhat Hanh (pronounced Tick Nought Han - but he's called Thay, mostly pronounced Thai) is like the Dalai Lama of Vietnamese Buddhism. During the Vietnam War he travelled to America to raise awareness about the devastation being caused. Martin Luther King nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967. When the war was ended and Thay tried to go home, the government refused him entry. It was 39 years before he was allowed to set foot inside Vietnam.

In exile, he set up a monastic community east of Bordeaux, called Plum Village. There Thay spends his days writing and offering teachings on peace activism, mindful living and buddhism. He's also a poet. And a Zen Master. And he likes to garden as well.

Saturday is arrival/departure day. There are about 1300 people checking in and out across four hamlets. The nuns in my hamlet look entirely unphased.

I’ll be staying in the Full Moon room, sharing with four other people. Over my bed hangs a piece of calligraphy: The ceaseless sweep of time is forever renewing the face of eternity. I don’t know what it means, but it’s beautifully drawn, and I smile when I see it.

Orientation isn’t until 8pm. I wander outside into the sunshine. By my house, two people stand opposite each other, holding long Little John poles. They raise them, sweeping to the side and gracefully stretch alongside them. Tents are set up in the fields around - families with children of all ages are playing games, reading, sunbathing, napping.

Several hundred people are dotted across the hamlet. Some are dressed like children’s TV presenters. Others are wearing what they imagined people on Buddhists retreats wear (Birkenstocks, long Indian skirts, cut-off tops, hand-dyed pashminas). But most people just look normal. Everyone's chatting, laughing, recounting. It’s more animated than I expected. Not monastic at all.

I wander over to a lotus pond and walk along the edge of a large plum orchard – I don’t want to stray too far. I’m starving. Fear of missing lunch is strong in me.

A bell rings, and people move slowly towards a building. I follow, trying not to look desperate. Inside the Dining Hall, we queue up before an array of delicious-smelling Vietnamese dishes. I’m doling out noodles when a clock chimes, and everyone freezes. I halt in mid-noodle-scoop. I remember one of Thay’s books: it talks about how the sound of a bell calls us back to the present moment. It's an opportunity to breathe, to realise that you're alive. But my brain doesn't do that. Instead an image of my sister pops into my head. She's driving me to the airport. She's singing with gusto a 'musical statues' song by Jo Jo the Clown: “Wiggle… wiggle… statues!”

I make a mental note to lynch her when next we meet.

People start moving again and I pile my plate high - for fear that dinner is really ‘supper’, which barely counts as food. I try to chew my food 40 times. That’s what Thay does. After 9 chews my mouth is empty. I take a bigger mouthful to see if that lasts longer. 12 chews. By the end of the meal I make it to 30.

I find a schedule for the week ahead. Thay will give 3 talks, 2 of them in English (the community speaks French, English and Vietnamese). On Tuesday we’ll have the Festival of Peace. The schedule mentions ‘Dinner with family’. I ponder this, then see a note for the ‘Pot Washing-Up Family’.

At dinner (which is full-sized), two French ladies sit with me. I asked if they’d had a nice day. They shrug, “Okay. We’re waiting for tomorrow”.

Bear in mind: this place is all about living in the present moment. Spending a day here waiting for tomorrow… well it’s kind of missing the point.

No comments: